In the past few months the already tenuous relationship between Jews and Arabs has been put to the test once again. This is, above all, a human issue — one concerning appropriate relations between people who live side by side. But it also raises an important practical and political issue: At a time when countries across the Middle East are collapsing to their ethnic and tribal foundations, there is no guarantee that the State of Israel will be immune from such a process. It’s one that is dangerous for the Arab minority and the Jewish majority alike.
The fight against hatred and racism should permeate all aspects of Israeli society: in speeches by the president, prime minister and government ministers; in the education system, law enforcement, media and marketing campaigns, and in any other way relevant. However, it must be clear that all this is merely treating the symptoms and not the cause. For years, the left has claimed, largely with good reason, that it is not enough to fight Palestinian terrorism, but we also need to find a solution for the future of millions of Palestinians who lost their homes or their status in the wake of the establishment of Israel.
In the same vein, it may be said today that it is essential to fight hatred and racism, but it is certainly not sufficient. We must also drain the swamp in which racism breeds. In my opinion, the essence of this swamp is the Jewish public’s intense fear for its future, both the future of its physical security, which has been threatened by Arab hostility since the beginning of Zionism, and the future character of Israel as a Jewish state.
Some people in Israel and abroad have a dismissive or even contemptuous attitude toward this fear. They invoke Israel’s enormous military might, including its reported nuclear weapons, as evidence that this fear is unfounded and perhaps even deliberately inflated by a manipulative leadership. This view is misguided. First, even if the fear is not realistic, it should be taken seriously and efforts should be made to try to dispel it. Second, the fact that Israel probably has nuclear weapons does not help the individual Israeli who is being threatened on a daily basis by terrorist attacks. Third, anyone who looks at the regional map, even briefly, will see that while Israel may be a “Goliath” in the conflict with the Palestinians, it is certainly far from it in the context of the Muslim world that surrounds it, and we have seen in recent days how non-Muslim minorities are treated in the Middle East.
In this context, the threat of losing Israel’s character as a Jewish state is also seen not only as a matter of values and identity but also as an existential threat. So the insistence on enacting Basic Laws that would anchor the status of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, which has been voiced in right-wing circles and part of the political center, is understandable. On the other hand, of course, Arab hate crimes are expressions of fear on the Arab side, both for the fate of their people outside the borders of Israel and for their own future within Israel.
This is why I think it is better to define the serious incidents that we have witnessed not as expressions of “racism” but rather as “hatred,” “incitement” and “hate crimes.” If this assessment is correct, and the expressions of hatred and the hate crimes that we experienced in recent months indeed stemmed from fear, we must add four steps to the legal battle, the educational battle and the public battle that are the primary means of combating this mutual fear.
The first step is to adopt a Basic Law that establishes Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The phrase “Jewish and democratic state” entered Israeli public discourse in 1992, with the adoption of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and has since become an essential part of the self-definition of Israeli society. The problem is that this concept has never been given a legally binding definition in Israeli law, whether in the law that was passed 22 years ago or any time since. The result is intensification of the double fear of Jews and Arabs in Israel: The Arabs are concerned that the term “Jewish state” may be used to deprive them of their civil rights, while Jews (at least some) are concerned that the term “democratic state” may detract from Israel’s character as a Jewish state. A clear legal definition of this concept is therefore necessary, in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. This definition will determine that “Jewish state” means the nation-state of the Jewish people, while “democratic state” means that all citizens of the state will have full equality. While this step alone will not dispel the mutual fear, it certainly can help to allay it.
The second step is to establish a national project of Jewish-Arab encounters.
One factor that stirs up hatred and fear is alienation. Jews and Arabs rarely meet face to face, and when they do the encounters are often asymmetrical, with the Arabs serving as “service providers” for the Jews, and certainly do not include direct discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, members of each community base their knowledge of the positions of the “other side” primarily on the media, which tends to emphasize the voices of extremists in order to boost ratings. For this reason, there is a need for a national project, preferably under the auspices of the Israeli president, that will bring together Jews and Arabs at all levels: in schools, universities, civil society organizations, community centers, regional councils, etc.
The third step is to reinforce the civil, Israeli dimension in everyday life.
Israel is the state of the Jewish people and should remain so. This fact, however, results in alienation of the non-Jewish citizens of Israel. Therefore, while preserving Israel’s character as the Jewish nation-state, it is important to strengthen civil aspects of life that pertain to all Israelis. There must not only be unequivocal insistence on equal rights and conditions for all citizens, but also a concerted effort to integrate Arab citizens in all areas of life: politics, culture, sports, media, the economy and other spheres. At the same time, we must create initiatives for cooperation between all citizens in civil areas such as the environment, health and welfare. One way of giving symbolic expression to the shared Israeli civil identity would be the creation of “Israeli Citizens Day,” on which ID cards will be issued to new citizens and to 16-year-olds who are getting their IDs for the first time. Such a day could be a “peak day” in the Jewish-Arab encounters project described above.
The fourth and final step is to insist that the Arab community participate in the fight against hatred and terrorism, directed against both sides.
Although it is natural to expect the Jewish majority to bear more responsibility in this area, the Arab minority cannot be exempt from active involvement in combating hatred. Ultimately, if the Jewish majority finds that violence in the Arab street or even attacks against Israel by external Arab enemies are met with silence (or receives condemnations from only a few lone voices), it will not see this silence as an understandable phenomenon related to the Arab community’s minority status, but rather as tacit approval of attacks against Israel and Israelis. It is justified to demand that all Arab citizens who do not want the ongoing state of hostility and hatred to continue must speak out not only against Jewish attacks against Arabs but also against Arab attacks against Jews, just as criticism about violence in both directions would be expected from any decent Jewish person.
The steps described above do not obviate the need for state authorities to respond to manifestations of hatred and incitement in a direct and resolute manner. But without these or similar measures, it is difficult to believe that the fight against hatred and incitement will succeed.
Yair Sheleg is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a columnist at the Israeli daily Maariv, and a features writer at the Israeli weekly Makor Rishon.